Life Is (Not) Great
Six Philosophers That Hated Existence
The world is a wonderful place, life is good, it is better to be alive than to be dead — so goes the prevailing wisdom of the ages. But not all agree. Including some philosophers. And some of them have even hated life with a passion.
Exactly how much of their sour judgements of reality stem from subjective emotional reactions — as some led particularly unlucky lives — and how much from pure philosophical inference is hard to tell. Suffice it to say, however, that they all thought of themselves as seeing the world as it truly is — which for them was a ghastly and meaningless place full of pain and suffering.
A word of warning. The extreme pessimistic views of the philosophers in question make other so-called pessimists, such as Nietzsche or Camus, appear like mere choirboys in comparison. This may also explain their relative obscurity for most people presumably do not read philosophy in order to be told that life is terrible and that we should abandon all hope; in fact, it is usually for the exact opposite of reasons. As such, this article is the exact opposite of the usual “inspirational” drivel that you will find copied throughout most of the internet.
Read at your own risk.
We laugh, but inept is our laughter;
We should weep and weep sore,
Who are shattered like glass, and thereafter
Remolded no more.
Al-Maʿarri was a blind Arab poet and philosopher who lost his eyesight at an early age due to smallpox. He was a skeptic centuries ahead of his time, rejecting all of the prevailing custom, tradition, and authority of his day.
Unlike his contemporaries, Al-Maʿarri was an atheist. Which, considering he lived in 11th century Syria, was almost unheard of at the time. He dismissed all of religion as mere fiction devised by the ancients in order to exploit the masses. He regarded the clergy as liars and the prophets as phonies. “O fools, awake!” he wrote, “The rites ye sacred hold are but a cheat contrived by men of old.” Although charged with heresy, he was never prosecuted for his beliefs, possibly hinting at a more tolerant time in Islamic history. Unlike today, when even his statue in Syria was both shot and decapitated by Islamic militants.
Yet Al-Maʿarri was not only critical of religion but of life in general and thought kindly of death. He also argued that in order to spare future generations of suffering, we should not conceive children. And, true to his beliefs, he remained celibate throughout his whole life, which lasted for 83 long years. His wish not to harm living beings extended also to animals and thus he was a vegetarian.
To give a particular example of his grim outlook of life, he purportedly wanted the following verse inscribed over his grave:
This wrong was by my father done
To me, but never by me to one.
To that creature, being born,
Its birthday is a day to mourn.
Yet another crippled poet and philosopher, this time from 19th century Italy, Giacomo Leopardi was a sickly hunchback with failing eyesight. He believed this was due to the long and grueling studies he took part of in solitude in his father’s library, which he said had turned him into a walking corpse. He was frequently depressed and at one time considered committing suicide.
According to Leopardi, there were three ways to judge life: the way of happy fantasy through the eyes of children; the way of the uncritical acceptance of the mediocrity of life by civilized adults; and the way of men who realize that life is empty and meaningless. “Children find everything in nothing,” he said, whilst “men find nothing in everything.”
Leopardi’s poetry revolves largely around the illusory nature of life and the inevitability of disillusionment and despair. Man continues living only because of his hope and imagination, which constantly is dreaming of a better future that rarely arrives.
Although he had few friends and was despised by many, it was none other than the famous German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer — who lived at the same time, though they never met — that admired Leopardi, even calling him his “soul brother”. Well, misery loves company, as they say.
Due to his ill health, Leopardi died at the early age of 38. Considering how little he enjoyed life, however, it is unlikely that he would have had many regrets about dying so young. In the poem titled To Himself, for instance, he had the following kind words to say about life:
Life is a bitter, weary load,
The world a slough. And now, repose!
Despair no more, but find in Death
The only boon Fate on our race bestows!
Life is hell, and the sweet still night of absolute death is the annihilation of hell.
The philosopher with one of the darkest views of existence that ever lived, Philipp Mainländer was born in Germany to well-off parents and even worked in banking for a period of time.
Although initially inspired by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, he would end up vastly surpassing the former’s pessimism. According to Mainländer, before the beginning of time there was God. And the only thing God wanted was to die. Since he was a being of infinite unity, however, the only way he could kill himself was to shatter his timeless being into a time-bound and material universe.
Thus, since it was God’s death wish that gave life to the world, everything in it possesses an intrinsic will-to-die and is destined towards permanent oblivion. Or in other words, we are the rotting pieces of God’s remains. It may be interesting to note that this idea somewhat resembles the scientific concept of entropy, which will result in the eventual heat death of the universe.
Like Al-Maʿarri, Mainländer suggested that humanity should stop reproducing. But he went one step further still. Once we have stopped reproducing, he thought, we should then commit suicide, for we would thus be following along with God’s plan and would therefore, in a sense, be redeemed.
Here is a little excerpt from his cheerful philosophy:
In the heart of things, the immanent Philosopher sees in the entire cosmos only the deepest longing for complete extinction; it is as if he heard clearly the call that pierces all the celestial spheres: Redemption! Redemption! Death to our Life! and the cheering reply: you all will find extinction and will be redeemed!
When he was 34 years old, Mainländer, true to his beliefs, committed suicide. He did it by hanging himself, using a batch of his freshly published magnum opus The Philosophy of Redemption as a pedestal. It was this very book, which Nietzsche had read, that said:
God is dead and his death was the life of the world.
The world is an inextricable tangle of contradictions of the most tragic negativity.
The roots of Julius Bahnsen’s pessimism appear early. Already at the age of seventeen he announced that “Man is only a self-conscious Nothing.”
In his autobiography, Bahnsen tells of the numerous disappointments in his life. For instance, his first wife’s death seventeen months after their marriage; his unhappy second marriage; and his thwarted dreams of an academic career.
The philosopher ended up working as a school teacher in a small town in the middle of nowhere, where he had few friends. And to make matters worse, his books did not sell. Despite all this, he maintained that his pessimism was not the result of his life experiences, but rather from his philosophy of life.
For Bahnsen, the world was chaotic, irrational, meaningless, and with no order or goal. His philosophy paints the world as eternally self-tormenting, constantly tearing at itself for no reason. There is no hope and there is no salvation, neither through self-denial nor through art or science, which he claimed cannot hope to see the world as it truly is due to the world’s fundamentally irrational and self-contradictory nature. “The goal of all ideal striving,” Bahnsen said, “is, essentially, the metaphysically impossible.” And the world, according to him:
Knows only an endless self-masochism and torture.
Peter Wessel Zapffe
A coin is examined, and only after careful deliberation, given to a beggar, whereas a child is flung out into the cosmic brutality without hesitation.
According to Norwegian philosopher and mountaineer Peter Wessel Zapffe, humans have evolved an intrinsic need for meaning and purpose in their lives. Their actual environment, however, lacks both.
He thought humans have been cursed by a certain evolutionary oversight — too much consciousness. We are the only animal able to contemplate the tragic meaninglessness of existence, into which we have been brutally thrust without a choice. And this is where depression stems.
In an essay titled The Last Messiah, Zapffe pointed out the four major strategies mankind has invented in order to cope with his existential ordeal:
- By isolating all the disturbing and unpleasant thoughts in our consciousness and dismissing them from our daily lives.
- By anchoring ourselves to various arbitrary institutions, such as family, god or country, in order to live within the comfortable illusion of certainty that these provide.
- By distracting ourselves from our predicament with a variety of pointless pastimes and mindless amusements (for example sports).
- By sublimating our awareness of the absurdity of life into valuable stylistic or artistic experiences (for example art).
Zapffe regarded the last strategy as the most valuable and recognized his own work as an example. But he also found suicide a perfectly natural reaction to our existential predicament and said that “the modern barbarity of ‘saving’ the suicidal is based on a hair-raising misapprehension of the nature of existence.” He even advocated for a voluntary extinction of the human race by abstaining from reproducing. And for his part he remained childless throughout his long life of 90 years. His overall view may be summed up by the following “life guidance” which he offered near the end of his aforementioned essay:
Know yourselves — be infertile, and let the earth be silent after ye.
The final aim of history is a crumbling field of ruins. Its final meaning is the sand blown through the eye-holes of human skulls.
Ulrich Horstmann is a literary scholar and philosopher who is virtually unheard of outside Germany. And, unlike the philosophers above, he is still alive — which means that the past tense of the title is perhaps not entirely accurate, since Horstmann presumably still hates existence.
Through his analysis of history, he has concluded that our species is engaged in a constant process of armament, with the eventual end goal of wiping itself out through war. History for him is nothing more than a slaughterhouse, “the place of a skull and charnel house of a mad, incurably bloodthirsty slaughtering, flaying and whetting, of an irresistible urge to destroy to the last.”
Although inspired by the already extreme philosophy of Philipp Mainländer, Horstmann ends up with an even more explicit solution regarding the problem of human existence. In his book The Beast he goes so far as to suggest the use of nuclear weapons in order to bring forth the extinction of the human race. For him only the absolute annihilation of life would give rise to a universal redemption when we would once again achieve the existential peace of inorganic matter. According to Horstmann’s apocalyptic vision:
The true Garden of Eden is desolation.